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Prizing History

June 2024
12min read


Richard Gilder, sixty-six, a hugely successful New York investment counselor, and Lewis Lehrman, sixty-one, a Pennsylvania-born businessman who ran for governor of New York in 1982, joined forces in 1990 to become the decade’s most unlikely but arguably most influential partners in the field of American history. Together they have all but cornered the market on both spending and giving away money in the pursuit of history. In a single decade they have amassed a colossal collection of original manuscripts and artifacts and created a variety of ways to share that collection with scholars and the general public. They have funded public exhibitions, created a learning center at Yale and the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute at Gettysburg College, sponsored publications, hosted lecture series, endowed magnet history schools, championed adult education, financed research, and endowed the most generous prizes ever created for achievement in writing American history.

This year they mark their tenth anniversary as a joint collecting juggernaut as well as the tenth anniversary of their first and best-known effort in behalf of historical scholarship, the Lincoln Prize, a fifty-thousand-dollar annual award given through Gettysburg College for the best book or other contribution on the Civil War era. The winners (who also receive a large bronze replica of a Saint-Gaudens head of Lincoln) have ranged from the Ivy League professors David Herbert Donald, Barbara Fields, and James M. McPherson to the filmmaker Ken Burns. Three lifetime achievement awards have also been presented, to the historians Kenneth Stampp, Don E. Fehrenbacher, and Richard N. Current.

To mark the twin milestones, we asked Gilder and Lehrman to look both back and ahead and to discuss the rewards as well as the challenges of keeping history alive. The conversation took place in Gilder’s office high above midtown Manhattan, a compact, utilitarian, glass-windowed room in a hive of brokers and investors.

Gilder—tweedy, bow-tied, perpetually half-bemused-looking—clasped his hands across his large, cluttered desk, working hard to ignore the frenzy of activity humming around us. Lehrman, lean, silver-haired, immaculately dressed, and serious, sat calmly in a chair opposite.

First of all, how and why did each of you become so interested in American history?

Lehrman : Well, I started my professional life as a teacher of history, an assistant instructor at Yale. I originally thought I would be a history professor for the rest of my life. I had been born and raised just half an hour from Gettysburg, and I had had a wonderful teacher when I was in the sixth grade who often took me and a few others to the battlefield, at a time when you could find not only Civil War bullets but arrowheads in Devil’s Den that had been left behind by eighteenth-century Indian tribes. I spent a lot of time on that battlefield literally finding history.

The key thing was the need to honor the teaching of American history.”

Gilder : I signed up to major in economics at Yale, hut the economics professor was so horrible, so abstruse, that I moved first to English and then finally to history. My father had occasionally taken me on Civil War battlefield day trips and had taught me that the Civil War and Mr. Lincoln were worth recollecting. Since I revered everything he told me, that piece of advice stuck with me.

Lehrman : I have to add that my grandfather was a self-educated immigrant who was an unself-conscious, completely unapologetic apostle of the American idea. While I was a student at Yale, I considered leaving the United States for the first time to do what college men often did, take a tour of Europe. My grandfather was scandalized. Having left everything there happily behind, he could not understand what I could possibly be looking for in Europe. I never forgot that. And I developed a particular interest in Lincoln.

How did you get introduced to each other?

Gilder : Back in the late sixties I had just started my investment firm, and Lew was then running the Rite Aid drugstore company. Some friends and I went down to Pennsylvania to view the company and meet the principals. We were impressed with Lew, so we bought some stock. I think I sold it about a month later. That was a bad mistake; it went a lot higher. Later, when Lew decided to move to New York, he was re-introduced to me by mutual friends, this time as a potential client. I recommended a stock, and Lew placed quite a nice order. About a month later the stock dropped ten points. Elinching, I called Lew to tell him, but he just said, “Why don’t we buy some more?” So I realized he was a very superior fellow, with enough confidence in me to screw up not once but twice. After that we started comparing notes on a lot of things.

Lehrman : We grew closer in the seventies. I had established the Lehrman Institute for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, and we believed in the same things. When 1 decided to run for governor of New York, one of the first people I went to was Dick. I remember, of all the friends and acquaintances I could gather, only three or four thought running for governor was a sane idea.

Gilder : I was not among them. [Laughs.]

Lehrman : Dick and I shared common beliefs. It was thé age of Jimmy Carter, pessimism, malaise, stagflation, and Henry Kissinger and the theory of American decline. We wanted America to grow again.

But when did you decide “let’s collect together”? That’s quite a leap.

Gilder : All of that started, really, thanks to Professor Gabor Boritt, of Gettysburg College. He had heard of Lew’s interest in things Lincolnian. He also knew that Lew was a wealthy drugstore magnate, so he conceived of a Lincoln Prize and asked Lew to fund it. Lew asked me to help, and the prize became the impetus for joint collecting.


Lehrman : From the time I was in graduate school I had collected historical manuscripts. You could buy interesting things for only a few dollars in the late fifties and early sixties. For me, it was always all about Lincoln and the American founders. By 1990 Dick and I had created the Lincoln Prize, and we began full-bore together in collecting. The really important juncture was Dick’s inspiration that this modest exercise I’d begun should become a major effort to collect American historical documents and make them available to history teachers. It all took on a completely different scale when this eight-hundred-pound gorilla over here …

Gilder : I was no collector. I had once bought a Stonewall Jackson Bible that had Jackson’s pencil scribbling in it, and people loved it. A few people even got married with it. But that was about it. I did support battlefield preservation, hut 1 didn’t have the patience to collect anything, really, except money. Then, one day, after Lew had begun speaking to Gabor Boritt, he called me and said, “Why don’t you join me on a trip to Gettysburg?” Later we were having lunch, and he said, “You know, collecting battlefields is nice, but collecting documents is really important . With a little support the battlefields will stay there whether you collect them or not. But this could be the last chance to put together something really big and important.” And, frankly, he talked to me about the speculative aspect, which 1 admit is always nine-tenths of what I’m interested in. I don’t have the knowledge Lew has, but I sensed this was a huge opportunity. Lew organized the team.

Lehrman : It was clear to me that there were a substantial number of great American documents still in private hands that were not being made available to scholars, students, and teachers.

So you pooled resources and went on the trail?

Lehrman : Starting in 1990, Dick and I, plus Paul Romaine, an outstanding curator and archivist, and a dealer named Seth Kaller, organized an enterprise reaching out to every dealer in the English-speaking world. Neither Dick nor I have ever been to an auction, but we’ve got very able and trusted people working for us. Systematically, over ten years now, we’ve assembled a collection of fifty thousand items, among them manuscripts, treaties, letters, maps, newspapers, material on early photography in America, and images of Lincoln, Grant, and Sheridan, among many others.

Gilder : Lew adopted a kind of classic financial posture: He stormed the market. It was his strategy, which I endorsed, to push prices up suddenly so as to cause shock in the market and have a lot of documents become available, like leaves falling from trees. That’s precisely what occurred. He also set up a triple vetting system, to check carefully for forgeries. That’s when he happened to see my wonderful Stonewall Jackson Bible and said, “Where did you get that?” I mentioned the dealer, and Lew said, “Would you mind if we had this vetted too?” So of course it came back a complete forgery. I was worried. Should I at least tell the people who were married with it that it was a fake? But I haven’t. I hope by now the statute of limitations applies.

Lehrman : The Bible was right here in this very office. Dick took it out to show it to me. I didn’t say it then and there, but there’s an old saw among historical manuscript people that there are seven original Stonewall Jackson Bibles. It was always plausible that Dick’s was one of the seven- or one of seven hundred.

Gilder : One day Lew called about this important Jefferson bust by Houdon. He never called me for anything under a hundred thousand dollars, so I knew it was important. He warned me it was expensive. I said, “Lew, doesn’t this get us into a whole new realm? We’re supposed to be collecting maps and documents. But works of art? We’ll quadruple our scope and I’ll run out of money. I vote against it.” Naturally he bought it anyway. And from that has come even more enjoyment, including involvement with Monticello. It’s been a glorious association, all because Lew refuses to be reined in by good common sense.

Where do you keep fifty thousand items?

Lehrman : The collection is on deposit at the Morgan Library here in New York, where the director, Charles E. Pierce, Jr., and the head of literary and historical manuscripts, Robert Parks, do a lot to help make it available. But it’s still growing, and much more rapidly than people are aware, since we try to do our work as privately and confidentially as possible. If Dick and I get another twenty years on earth, I think the collection will be one of the great repositories for the study of American history.

And beyond the next twenty years? Have you made plans to keep it whole in perpetuity?

Gilder : We want to. We own it privately, but we’re in the process of transferring it to a tax-free organization, which will give us a number of options. We can keep it at the Morgan—and the people have been wonderful there—but they and we are not sure it’s the right repository to have thousands of teachers and schoolchildren going through. We have pledged to each other to keep the collection in New York City. Whether we build our own building or find another fine institution will be decided in the next few years.

Lehrman : But it will be a perpetual educational resource. All the documents, all the maps, all the treaties, every one of the first editions, nothing will ever come on the market again. Not a single document. Dick’s comments about the creation of a teaching library or repository is a modest comment. The Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History is already making very extensive use of the collection. There’s been a major book published with the collection as its basis, The Boisterous Sea of Liberty.

Gilder : We sponsor lectures all over the country. We sponsor three history high schools in New York City, one parochial and two public. Students don’t have to take a test to get in, so they have a real cross section. They’re doing awfully well. We also have a number of Saturday academies, where traditional American subjects—literature, free market economics, history—are all taught by board-certified teachers. We’ve sponsored museum exhibitions and fellowships at the New-York Historical Society, Columbia University, and the Morgan; the fellows’ job is to use the Gilder Lehrman Collection for their research. We sponsor a series of summer seminars at Yale, Gettysburg College, the University of Virginia, Brown, Amherst, and Harvard, and we may do one at Barnard, each one with middle and high school teachers or National Park rangers attending for up to two weeks. Recently we started the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, at Yale. Of course we have the Lincoln Prize. And we’ve just set up a Frederick Douglass Book Prize for the best book on slavery and abolition. Lew and I are now considering a Founders’ Prize, to honor work done in earlier history.

What inspired the decision to launch your first—and biggest—prize, the Lincoln Prize?

Lehrman : I always loved Mr. Lincoln, so when Gabor Boritt proposed a prize for the finest work on American history in his era, I just said, “Let’s get this done.” Dick thought it was a good idea too. We had all the muscle we needed—Dick, Gabor, and Gettysburg College—to launch it very quickly, and we inaugurated the prize with a luncheon at the National Portrait Gallery less than a year later.

Did you intentionally make it the most lucrative prize by far in the field?

Gilder : At first Gabor had in mind a five-thousand-dollar prize because, as he explained to us, the Pulitzer was three thousand dollars. I pointed out to Gabor that people would pay three thousand dollars to get the Pulitzer Prize—it wasn’t about money—but that we had to make a mark. Lew, with his retailing background, sensed that as well. He had said to me earlier that what would really blow everyone’s socks off would be to give fifty thousand dollars. Lew, do I embellish?

Lehrman : No. That’s right. But the interesting thing was when Gabor was sitting there in his polite, academic way and mentioned five thousand dollars and Dick said, “No, it will have to be fifty thousand.” There was total silence.

Why a Lincoln Prize and not a prize in, say, Jeffersonian studies?

Gilder : Well, Gabor Boritt teaches Lincoln. He’s an entrepreneurial historian with the audacity and courage to think of something new, and it hit Lew in the sweetest of sweet spots. I just like action. We did have one debate. I’m interested in the common soldier, and I wanted it to be called the Lincoln and Soldiers Prize. I believe that markets have a certain wisdom. When hundreds of thousands of men get behind a cause, that is the market speaking, so Mr. Lincoln, for all his vision, would not have prevailed without the market of soldiers behind him. Lew argued that the Lincoln Prize has a splendid ring to it. He suggested, “Let’s create the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute, and it will present the Lincoln Prize.” And that seemed a very fair compromise.

This could be the last chance to put together something really big.”

Lehrman : We created a one-page constitution, not much longer than the Gettysburg Address and not strictly constructed, so there was enough room to give the first prize to the great PBS series on the Civil War by Ken Burns. The reason we chose that was that while there are many books that are every bit as eloquent, what Ken Burns did was to quicken the imagination for some forty million Americans, getting them to focus on the centrality and momentousness of Lincoln and the Civil War.

As businessmen did you believe the Lincoln Prize would stimulate the field through the basic business principle of competition? And has that annual competition been one of the reasons for the huge revival in Lincoln scholarship in the 1990s?

Lehrman : The key thing, I still think, was the need to honor the teaching of American history. The Nobel prizes are given for a certain kind of distinction. The Pulitzers are given for certain other distinctions. But a really substantial prize dedicated to American historians had not yet been created.

Gilder : We’re fighting just to get schools to think about history at all. A prize, a competition, always makes the blood run and always brings out the best in people. Certainly competition is at the heart of it, but the real idea is to urge people to stand up and take notice.

Do you pick the winners yourselves?

Lehrman : No. We wanted the winners to be chosen by a jury of the most distinguished American historians, and they have been. The Lincoln Prize board hears the jury’s recommendations and acts on them.

Gilder : Lew and I do at least get a chance to chew over the finalists. We have a discussion with the jury, and anyone who has a view of Lincoln other than Lew’s is certainly in for a vigorous discussion. It’s interesting to hear a layperson catechize the teachers. The hearty ones enjoy it.

Here is an inevitable question for a presidential election year. Could Lincoln have succeeded as a candidate for the White House today?

Lehrman : Absolutely. He was a man for all seasons, in the most earthy aspects of American politics as well as the most sublime.

Gilder : His dignity and natural, poetic instincts would have come across on television just magnificently.

Is that why interest is still so high in Abraham Lincoln? It seems to be growing.

Lehrman : The intrinsic honor of his career and his achievement and sacrifice capture the imagination of every man or woman who comes in touch with him. If I may look backward, it’s increasingly clear that if the Union armies had not won the Civil War, and Lincoln had not persisted and prevailed, and slavery had not been abolished when it was, then the American model would never have inspired emerging nations around the world. We became what Lincoln called the “last, best hope of earth” because of Lincoln.

Gilder : I would add that the reason that Americans are so emotionally involved in Lincoln is that they know that ours is the only country founded on an idea, and the idea is that all men are created equal. It took Lincoln to extend that promise. Six hundred thousand people died in the process, but the idea goes forward.

At a recent Gilder Lehrman Lecture, a professor conceded that most professional historians don’t stimulate audiences the way they should, that there’s a gulf between academic and popular history. Is that a concern of yours? Can it be bridged?

Gilder : We’re now working with the American Association of Retired Persons, offering lectures, and they sell out. There’s enormous interest among people over forty. It may be less among young people who have to worry about how to pay for college and make a living, but they’ll be over forty soon enough. There can be a perfect consanguinity between scholarship and popularity if people are given a proper chance.

Lehrman : I think things are changing. Even the elitist character of the professor-historian is changing. When I was an instructor, there was a total focus on graduate students and publications, and the undergraduates were ignored. Now I have the impression that historians are beginning to write for a much larger constituency. I would like to think we’ve encouraged that.


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